Article

How IT pros got hooked on open source software

Jan Stafford

After one too many reboots due to Microsoft Office glitches, I downloaded OpenOffice.org. Then, my theme song became "Happy days are here again."

That happened in 2001, which makes me a relatively early adopter of the OpenOffice.org office suite. But, I'm a relative latecomer when it comes to getting "hooked" on open source software (OSS), as the following three stories from fellow OSS converts shows.

Before I turn the mike over to other OSS enthusiasts, I have to say that I'd used and liked Linux for six years before trying OpenOffice.org. But, I wasn't an open source fanatic until I used OpenOffice and bid farewell MS Office's quirks, like its on-again, off-again relationship with my keyboard. So, since 2001, I've been eagerly downloading OSS, playing with it and using it whenever possible.

Now, let's check out how IT pros Steve Shah, Joel Sweatte and Don Godfrey got the OSS bug.

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How OSS saved Steve Shah, ex-pirate

A computer hobbyist during his teen years, Shah became a Unix fan during his college years. He used SCO Unix at his day job and SunOS on the IPX machines at school. Then, around 1993, his university was one of the first to adopt Linux and open source software for its lab machines. That was a revelation for Shah because -- as a teen -- his curiosity about the inner workings of software had led him to "pirate" a bit of code here and there. Via Linux and OSS, Shah found software that he could examine and change … legally. He was hooked.

"I backed up all of the programs and papers I had written from my huge 340 MB hard disk and installed [Linux] 0.99," Shah said.

Open source software became critically important to Shah as he wrote more software and administered more systems. "Troubleshooting closed systems with closed software can be tricky," he said. "Having to accept broken code is frustrating, especially when your user is sitting in front of you wondering why he can't get his work done."

With OSS, Shah found that developers didn't make false claims about their creations' capabilities. Also, he could tackle bugs and porting issues without waiting for a vendor to respond.

Shah looks forward to more development of OSS and to proprietary vendors releasing more code to open source. "Not all open source products can do or support what I need them to," he said. "Not all closed sourced products offer the features, flexibility and customization I need for a given project." So, he's got to make peace between and use both proprietary and open source software to get his job done.

Don Godfrey: Without OSS, Windows is broken

Don Godfrey got a total-emersion course in open source software and learned to love the language. Unschooled in both Linux and Unix, he was hired by Apropos Retail Management Systems and put together a project team. That team had to deploy Apropos' point-of-sale software on Linux, a new undertaking in the world of POS systems.

Godfrey found himself in the land of GNU, awk, grep and sed utilities. "I was amazed at their versatility and power," he said. Wanting more, he searched for the same tools for his Windows 98 desktop. Disappointment followed. There were rudimentary awk and sed utilities for Windows, but they were too awkward to use.

After more examination, Godfrey decided to put Cygwin's bash shell on his desktop. He figured that with Cygwin, he could get the same horsepower on the Windows 98 desktop as he got on Apropos' Linux servers. By golly, he was right.

"I now run a duel-boot Mandrake Linux 9.2 on Windows 2000 system for my PC," he said. The Linux side is much easier to use for such open source tools as Perl, sed, awk, grep and for open source applications like PostgresSQL and MySQL databases. A real boon, he said, "is being able to use vi, instead of the weird editing tools available with Windows."

Since Godfrey's first exposure to open source tools in the mid-1990s, Windows versions of some of his favorite open source tools have been released. This OSS convert said: "If open source people hadn't made Windows versions of sed, awk, and grep and hadn't ported Perl to Windows, Windows would be completely worthless."

Joel Sweatte: Getting hooked while finding a cure

Joel Sweatte's search for a cure for a former employer's e-mail quota problems brought him to open source software. The company's employees could get to information, including large presentations or spreadsheets, or testing or analyzing data. His team pulled 10 old PCs, already shrink-wrapped for disposal, and built one good machine from pieces and parts.

Onto the madeover PC, they loaded Linux, squirell mail and some open source security tools. Then, they put it in the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between any two policy-enforcing components, and set up accounts for internal users and customers.

"The net investment was the time for our Linux admin to build and deploy the solution," Sweatte said.

Two years later, that system was still running strongly in production. Another year down the road, the hardware was upgraded, but the software configuration -- all open source -- remained as it was from Day 1. There was never a system failure due to software." It was a cheap, elegant, dependable solution that worked," he said.

Besides being inexpensive, the system was a hit with users. "They didn't have to mess with FTP; they just used the drop-box system like e-mail, as in drag-and-drop," Sweatte added.

Sweatte was sold on open source software, too, and is now a frequent user. The success of that first experiment, Sweatte said, gave open source "a lot of legitimacy for use further exploits," he added.


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